If you conduct a poll of practicing Christians and ask them what their ultimate hope is, the vast, vast majority of them would say getting to heaven. They would explain that our souls live on after our bodies die, so they hope that their souls will spend a blissful eternity with God in heaven. However, this actually isn’t what our faith teaches; our ultimate hope is not to remain disembodied spirits. It is resurrection. God created us with both bodies and souls, and he wants us to stay that way. Granted, we lose our bodies when we die, but our faith teaches that we will get them back at Jesus’ second coming, and that is the way we hope to remain for all eternity (Catechism of the Catholic Church 989-991, 1016-1017).
Surprising Testimony to Resurrection
This idea may seem foreign to many people today, but it’s the clear teaching of the New Testament. In fact, if we read Scripture carefully, we will see that it talks about the resurrection in ways that are very similar to how most Christians today talk about heaven. Specifically, let’s look at two passages from St. Paul’s letters that do this:
But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that…if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8, 11)
In the first passage, St. Paul is writing to people who have lost loved ones, and he exhorts them to comfort one another with reminders of our hope for eternal life after death. However, unlike modern Christians, he does not tell them to remind one another that the souls of their loved ones will be with God in heaven. Instead, he tells them to comfort one another with words about the resurrection; he tells them to remind one another that when Jesus comes again, the faithful departed will get their bodies back and live forever with God as body-soul composites.
In the second passage, St. Paul expresses his hope for himself, and again, he doesn’t mention heaven. He doesn’t say that he wants to spend the rest of eternity with God as a disembodied soul. No, he says that he hopes to “attain the resurrection from the dead.” He hopes to be reunited with his body when Jesus comes again and spend the rest of eternity that way.
The Reality of Heaven
However, this is not to say that we won’t go to heaven after we die or that the New Testament says nothing about a disembodied state between this life and the resurrection. No, Scripture does hint at the state of the faithful as they await Jesus’ second coming:
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. (Philippians 1:21-24)
Here, St. Paul tells us that he wants to die (in context, “depart” is clearly a euphemism for death) “and be with Christ,” and this is a subtle nod to what Christians today call heaven. He doesn’t explain what exactly this would entail, but if we compare it to what he says about the resurrection, we can figure out what he means. First, he has to be talking about being with Jesus right away after death. If he is simply referring to the resurrection, then his logic here wouldn’t make any sense. The resurrection will happen at Jesus’ second coming, so it will not come any sooner for him no matter when he dies. From this, we can then see that he has to be referring to a disembodied state. We do not get our bodies back right away when we die, so St. Paul must be referring to a disembodied state between death and the resurrection. And today, we call that state “heaven.”
Buildings and Clothes
All this leads us to an obvious question: Why do we get our bodies back? Why can’t we just spend the rest of eternity with God as disembodied spirits? Again, we can turn to the words of St. Paul for an explanation. He does not answer this question explicitly, but he does say something that helps us understand it:
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. (2 Corinthians 5:1-4)
This passage is tricky and dense with meaning, so we need to unpack it a bit to understand what exactly St. Paul is trying to convey. Essentially, he’s using various metaphors to talk about our bodies and souls. It is especially difficult because he quickly jumps from one metaphor to another, so if we don’t pay careful attention to them, it is easy to lose track of his train of thought.
Specifically, he uses two images here: buildings and clothes. We see the first image in the very first line of the passage, where he talks about “the earthly tent we live in” and the “building from God.” The “earthly tent” is our current, earthly body, and the “building from God” is our resurrected body, the one we will receive back when Jesus comes again. Consequently, when he says that we “long to put on our heavenly dwelling,” he’s talking about our hope for the resurrection. He is saying that we hope and long for our resurrected bodies, which will not be subject to the ills and weaknesses of this life.
Why the Resurrection
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, St. Paul moves on to the next metaphor. He says that we “long to put on our heavenly dwelling” so that “we may not be found naked,” and at first, this doesn’t seem to make much sense. We don’t put buildings on ourselves as if they were clothes. The key here is to understand that he is mixing his metaphors. He starts the sentence by comparing our resurrection bodies to a building, and he ends it by comparing them to clothes, an image that he will continue to use throughout the rest of the passage.
And once we understand this second metaphor, the meaning of the next sentence, the key part of the passage (for our purposes, at least), becomes clear. St. Paul then says that we “sigh with anxiety” in our earthly bodies “not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed.” Being “further clothed” is a reference to the resurrection, and being “unclothed” means being a disembodied spirit, a soul without a body. As a result, when he says that we want to be further clothed rather than unclothed, he’s saying that the resurrection will be better than disembodied life in heaven between our death and Jesus’ second coming.
And why will it be better? Well, he doesn’t explain that for us, but comparing the disembodied state to nakedness suggests an answer. In most contexts, being naked entails some sort of incompleteness; if we are naked, we are missing something that we should have (namely, clothes). Likewise, as long as we are souls without bodies, we will be similarly incomplete. We will be missing something we should have, and that something is the body. God created us with both bodies and souls, and he did so because he intends for us to remain that way. Death, the separation of body and soul, was never God’s plan; rather, it is a result of humanity’s Fall (Genesis 3:19). Consequently, as great as heaven will be, we will never be able to reach our ultimate goal until the resurrection. Without our bodies, we will always be incomplete, missing an essential part of what we are, and the resurrection is God’s remedy for that.
Why the Resurrection Matters
I want to look at one final question: Why is this important? Why does it matter that we understand that our ultimate hope is to get our bodies back rather than to spend eternity as disembodied spirits? Well, there are a few reasons, but I want to focus on just two. First, it helps us to make sense of Jesus’ resurrection. To many people today, Jesus’ resurrection seems like an anomaly, a strange, one-off event that sticks out like a sore thumb in salvation history. They think that we’re going to spend the rest of eternity as disembodied spirits, while Jesus (as well as Mary) will be in heaven with his body, and that just seems weird. However, once we understand that we are all supposed to get our bodies back, Jesus’ resurrection makes more sense. He rose from the dead because that is the goal that God intends for all of humanity; his resurrection just came a few thousand years earlier than ours.
Secondly, it helps us understand our own human nature. If we are incomplete without our bodies, then our bodies can’t be just shells that we shake off at death or external instruments that our souls merely use or inhabit. No, our bodies really and truly are us, just like our souls are, and this fact has tremendous moral implications. If our bodies really are us, then as long as our bodies are alive, then so are we. We are present in our bodies (and, more accurately, as our bodies) from conception until physical death, which means that both abortion and euthanasia are murder.
Incomplete Without Our Resurrected Bodies
At the end of the day, the modern idea that heaven is our ultimate goal isn’t so much wrong as it is just incomplete. Yes, we do hope to go to heaven when we die, but we also hope for something more. As we recite in the Nicene Creed every Sunday, we “look forward to the resurrection of the dead,” the day when the faithful departed will be reunited with their bodies and be made whole again. Until then, no matter how great heaven is, disembodied souls will remain incomplete.